Another strike against libertarian paternalism

by Russ Roberts on August 31, 2007

in Nanny State

In this post on energy policy, I wrote about economists’ role as policy advocates. I suggested it was naive to expect government to do what’s best for us (whatever that means). Rather we should expect politicians to respond to incentives. Not the same thing. And that’s one of the reasons I oppose so-called "libertarian paternalism," where government suggests good behaviors rather than imposing them. I wrote:

Shouldn’t we support having government encourage (not force) people to
make better decisions if without that encouragement people will make
bad decisions? My answer is no. I don’t expect pigs to fly. Why should
I expect government to be good at helping people make good decisions?

Today’s Washington Post has this depressing story:

In an attempt to raise the nation’s historically low rate of
breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an
attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince
mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not
breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma
inhalers topped with rubber nipples.

Plans to run these blunt ads
infuriated the politically powerful infant formula industry, which
hired a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a
former top regulatory official to lobby the Health and Human Services
Department. Not long afterward, department political appointees toned
down the campaign.

Don’t expect pigs to fly, cats to bark or politicians to act as if they care about us. They care about us if it helps them prosper. If it doesn’t, they care about more important influences.

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Troy Camplin, Ph.D. August 31, 2007 at 10:16 am

On my blog I have a posting titled "A New Check on the Old Checks and Balances," that I think you would like.

Joseph A Nagy Jr August 31, 2007 at 10:17 am

The government shouldn't be influencing us one way or another regarding any personal decision we make. It isn't their business. As long as people aren't infringing on the rights of others, the government has no business interfering.

Saum August 31, 2007 at 3:10 pm

That is a depressing story.

Joe Grossberg August 31, 2007 at 3:37 pm


"As long as people aren't infringing on the rights of others, the government has no business interfering."

When parents effectively starve their baby, is that not the business of the government?

If it is OK for the government to arrest parents who thorougly malnourish kids, why is it wrong for them to influence parents who might slightly malnourish them?

Jason August 31, 2007 at 3:43 pm


So are you ridiculing HHS for deigning to admonish us all on the dangers of formula-feeding or lamenting the influence of lobbyists to "tone down the campaign?" The distinction makes a huge difference in how I read your post. Please clarify.


Joseph A Nagy Jr August 31, 2007 at 4:18 pm


Effectively starving their baby? How is breast feeding or formula feeding starving the child? Both have advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage to breast feeding is a more nutrient rich liquid that also contains anti-bodies the baby will need later in life. Formula just provides nutrients. Some formula's are better then others. The best choice, no doubt, is breast feeding if the mother can support it.

The government shouldn't try to influence one decision over another. That child's welfare is solely in the hands of the parent, for better or worse, until the child can start taking autonomous steps toward securing it's own livelihood. Steps which can be taken as early as pre-puberty.

Reach Upward August 31, 2007 at 5:33 pm

My wife chose to breast feed all five of our kids. But to suggest that formula feeding amounts to starvation and child abuse is completely absurd. While you're at it, why don't you say that parents that take their kids to McDonald's are guilty of murder because of the poor nutrition provided? Let's get a grip here, people.

And speaking of going to McDonald's, I suppose our government-run school lunch program produces better health outcomes for kids than the nutrition choices their parents make for them? Nope. Studies have shown that kids' actual nutrition consumption in school cafeterias is pretty pathetic.

And although the government told us in 1964 that tobacco use is completely awful, it still heavily subsidizes tobacco farmers. Russ is correct in stating that politicians respond to incentives rather than behaving altruistically.

So count me as extremely skeptical of government's capacity to effectively prescribe what is best for us.

Unit August 31, 2007 at 8:40 pm

Beware of the Lactivist Lobby….

Mike August 31, 2007 at 9:19 pm


While I do not approve of parents starving their babies, you might consider the moral case Murray Rothbard made for what a mother's responsibility to her children are in his Ethics of Liberty.


T Sowell fan September 1, 2007 at 9:21 am

I just thought of an exciting new game for Cafe Hayek's denizens to play: predict muirgeo's response to the latest posting before he actually posts. A few of his more likely ideas on this topic:

1. Walmart sells baby formula and has conspired with other transnational megaliths to cover up the resulting epidemic of deaths around the world.

2. If more Americans had been breastfed, they would be fewer disagreements about the threat of man-made global warming.

3. The Iraq War is really all about creating a new market for the baby formula cartel to sell their products.

4. As a family doctor, this is one area where I, muirgeo, have superior knowledge and a right to be heard. So, I wanted to make sure that everybody knew that, without Al Gore's steadfast support, most American women would be unaware of breast feeding. Please see Mr. Gore's website

Your turn.

T Sowell fan September 1, 2007 at 9:33 am

All I can really guarantee is that, whatever muirgeo says on this topic, it will not show an understanding of a fundamental reality well put by George Mason U economist Walter Williams:

"The fact that Americans have become ruled by orders and special privileges helps explain all the money and graft that we see in Washington. We've moved away from a government with limited powers, as our Founders envisioned, to one with awesome powers. Therefore, it pays people to spend huge amounts of money to influence Congress in their favor, that is, get Congress to grant them privileges denied to other Americans."

muirgeo thinks that big biz lobbies dominate government and steal democracy from US citizens. The reality is the other way around. Politicians and government have forced biz (and other groups) to lobby to counteract the unnecessary, unconstitutional and wasteful intrusion of governments into not only the economy but every aspect of our lives.

M. Hodak September 1, 2007 at 10:51 am

In my class on the evolution of corporate governance, the corruption of state legislatures in the 19th century was rather more obvious than it is now; it was plain that they were beholden and responsive to the wealthy magnates of the day. While this looks like an indictment of the powerful capitalists who bribed the officials, I point out that one could only buy what was for sale. And the state legislatures were openly for sale, and in fact used the threat of legislation to extract as much as possible from key constituents.

The Progressive remedy to this was to increase the power of the Federal government to override the excesses at the state level. Some remedy, huh?

The amazing thing is how the philosophical descendants of the old progressives, modern liberals, are still convinced that legislative corruption is still just a matter of getting the right people into power–or perhaps a world body with greater powers. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Joseph A Nagy Jr September 1, 2007 at 11:10 am


I'll definitely have to read that, I have great respect for Mr. Rothbard.

I personally think a mother has a great responsibility to her children, as does the father, but one that cannot be imposed by the government. As it was said earlier, inferring that formula feeding a child is equivalent to starvation is irresponsible. My sister was formula fed (for a variety of reasons, the greatest of which was an early intolerance to lactose) and she turned out fine.

I also happen to believe that the government should not be expected to — nor on it's own — play nanny to the adults or children of this nation. Sole responsibility for properly raising a child lays with the parents. To turn to the government as the sole decider of what is best for any single child or group of children is irresponsible and dangerous. Look at the sorry state of government propaganda schools today for an example.

muirgeo September 1, 2007 at 1:31 pm

"And the state legislatures were openly for sale, and in fact used the threat of legislation to extract as much as possible from key constituents."

Posted by: M. Hodak

So you can give us an explicit historical example of this happening? I'd have to do a bit of research but I'd be willing to bet I could show you the corruption flows from the monied to the politicians as opposed to legislative extortion of the wealthy by politicians.

We had a "libertarian government" as you have said and it was corrupted as it ALWAYS WILL BE if the power is taken away from the people.

I'd suggest a good place to start would be with good idea of a government sponsored trans-continental railroad being corrupted by money interest like Harriman.

So Hodak you made a claim now back it up!

Lee Kelly September 1, 2007 at 4:12 pm

"We had a "libertarian government" as you have said and it was corrupted as it ALWAYS WILL BE if the power is taken away from the people." – muirgeo

The problem is that people have power in the first place, whether we are talking about politicians or an electorate. I might prefer an electorate with supreme power to a king with supreme power, but I would support neither. People, whether a few or many, are fallible and corruptible. The ideal, from a liberal perspective, is to limit the power of all men alike, from politician to businessman, campaigner to voter.

The question we ask, is not: who shall rule?, but rather: how can do we arrange our political institutions so as to rid ourselves of bad leaders or policies, or at least restrict the amount of harm they can do?

The first question, the one you address, begs an authoritarian answer. For plato the answer was that the wise shall rule: a philosopher king. For Marx the answer was that the lower class shall rule: a dictatorship of the proleteriat. For Islam the answer is that the Qu'ran shall rule: a Sharia state. For muirgeo the answer is that the majority shall rule: democratic pluralism (whatever that means).

The liberal rejects all these answers, because he rejects the question itself. There are no good authorities, no wise leader, strong man, divine text, or populace which can be trusted with power. Instead, all are suspect and open to criticism. And so our question changes: how can do we arrange our political institutions so as to rid ourselves of bad leaders and policies, or at least restrict the amount of harm they can do?

This is why liberals put so much value in the idea of a constitution, which can outline and preserve that minimal set of laws necessary to "rid ourselves of bad leaders or policies, or at least limit the amount of harm they can do."

To be sure, democratic processes constitute an important check on political power, but it sould not wield absolute power. There ought to be limits to democratic reform, because a tyranny of the majority is little better than a tyranny of the few, fundamental laws regarding liberty need to be safeguarded.

If the politician can be prevented from weilding power for the businessman or lobbyist to corrupt, then they will have to employ noncoercive means to achieve their ends, such as by competition in the market place or public debate. The ideal for a liberal is to remove that power, to make it a criminal offence for anybody, politician, lobbyist, businessman and vagrant alike who might have the presumption to try and exercise it.

The writer of the US constitution, and there philosophical forebearers in Britain, both understood this to be the ideal. It is unfortunate that by the power grabbing greed of politicians, and the irresponsibility of the supreme court, much of the original intention has been lost.


muirgeo September 1, 2007 at 4:29 pm

The ideal, from a liberal perspective, is to limit the power of all men alike, from politician to businessman, campaigner to voter.

Posted by: Lee Kelly

You guys keep saying that but no one can explain to me what that means from a practical standpoint. Just what would be different in your Libertarian Society? Would you advocate a much stricter constitution? A much stricter interpretation of the current constitution? Let only people with degrees in economics vote? What Lee?

Please tell me more specifically HOW we limit the power of the government other then better checks and balances. I would argue a couple of things to do would be to make political donations limited to $100 per person and to change the constitution so that the judiciary is truly independent. Also I'd consider instant run off voting like the Aussies do to give 3rd party candidates a chance. Or possibly make political parties ILLEGAl so each representative is only beholden to their constituents.

Lee Kelly September 1, 2007 at 4:33 pm

Incidently, if you are looking for an example of "democracy gone wrong," a good place to look is Malaysia.

The Muslim majority have been gradually reforming Malaysia into a Sharia state, a true tyranny of the majority.

The Christian-Chinese and Indians who are persecuted, would likely not agree that the problem with politics is the the power is not with "the people."

M. Hodak September 1, 2007 at 5:03 pm


I doubt any number of examples would make the slightest dent in your attitude, but here is one off the top of my head:

In 1871, Vanderbilt bought the New Haven Railroad from near-bankruptcy, and proceeded to raise the fares. The state politicians threatened to regulate the fares back down to their prior levels. For the public good, right? (As if there were a "correct" price for rail service.) Not. There were many well-connected people living on that line, and they appealed to their legislators for the regulatory relief. Dear muirgeo may wish to think that the legislators were only interested in strength of the arguments, but alas the legislators had campaigns to finance and dresses for their wives and schools for thier kids…that's what was on their minds as they listened. They then turned to Vanderbilt with the same 'public' mindset, and Vanderbilt, knowing how legislatures worked, outbid the local grandees just to keep his fare increase. Vanderbilt eventually turned the railroad around (evil capitalist that he was), using the revenues to finance many of the fine stations you still see now along the New Haven line, including Grand Central.

Regarding your Harriman-UP example, what horsesh*t. Harriman bought the UP out of arguably government-induced bankruptcy and returned it to health. Your assertion of Harriman corrupting a "government sponsored" UP indicates a view of history that is to the left of Howard Zinn.

muirgeo September 2, 2007 at 9:53 am

Incidently, if you are looking for an example of "democracy gone wrong," a good place to look is Malaysia.

Posted by: Lee Kelly

Yeah, but can you provide us an example of Libertarianism "gone right"? Where does that exist other then as a nice neat simple idea in the minds of some who wish the world to be simpler then it is. If it's such a success why does not even one single society embrace it?

Keith September 2, 2007 at 3:38 pm

Qoute from muirgeo: "Yeah, but can you provide us an example of Libertarianism "gone right"? Where does that exist other then as a nice neat simple idea in the minds of some who wish the world to be simpler then it is. If it's such a success why does not even one single society embrace it?"

I confess I think your question is valid. My own answer is that humans are still animals and have not evolved beyond the "us" versus "them" group mentality. Virtually every political special interest is just another "us" trying to use the power of the state to take something by force from "them". Until humanity figures out that this tactic is simply wrong and should not be used no matter how "good" the special interest might appear, then we will all remain animals existing in the shadows of the power, waiting for its next whim.

But that still doesn't change anything when it comes to libertarianism. Just because you can't see the path to what is right, doesn't change what is right and what is wrong.

Lee Kelly September 2, 2007 at 5:33 pm


There is no single "liberal society." There are, however, societies that approximate that ideal, to varying degrees. That said, the "ideal" is not so specific that we can neatly arrange every society by its similarity to liberalism. Instead, different socieites may employ a range of different methods, and institutions, to achieve liberalism.

The most successful societies in the history of the world, became so only after embracing liberal principles. The United States exemplifies such a society, and at least at its founding came as close to the liberal ideal as any other. That this has been eroded over the years should be a lesson to learn, not a refutation of the entire liberal program.

The fact that men are fallible and corruptible is presupposed by the liberal, that is precisely why we seek political institutions which limit the power of all men alike, but it also means that even a liberal society might be undermined by that falliblity or corruptibility. There are no guaruntees that such a society will persist forever, no more than a law against murder can prevent all murder once and for all.

But that does not preclude us from trying, both for ourselves and for others, because it is the only way to organise our social life without coercion, and free from the arbitrary power of men.

My personal feeling is that we need to render at least a small set of laws beyond all reform. These laws would safeguard a minimum amount of liberty, at least necessary to preserve liberal democracy itself. Moreover, any attempt to revise those laws, or pass legislation inconsistent with those laws, should be treated as a criminal offence.

It is also, of course, our responsibility to hold strong to the ideals and goals of liberalism, to ensure that we do not lose track of the purpose and role of government. I fear this is what is currently missing from the Western world, a recognition of why many of the great political reformers of the past moved toward liberalism.

The founders of the US declared independence, and wrote the constitution, largely to escape the arbitrary power of men, in particular, the king of England. However, to observe political debate in the US today, it is almost as thought pundits, journalists and the public are voting for a new king.


Lee Kelly September 2, 2007 at 5:46 pm

I think it was Lard Acton who pointed out: liberty is not a means to some political end, but rather the highest political end itself.

I believe many, even libertarians, too often lose sight of this. I have read many an argument here, where libertarians and non-libertarians have debated, yet liberty is treated as a means to an end, such as greater average health, equality of income, or general wealth.

People are fallible and corruptible, and when left to make their own choices will often make bad choices. Liberty will not always make people as wealthy, healthy of happy as they could possibly be, supposing government could be trusted to intervene wisely.

That, however, is not the point.

Shaun Connell September 2, 2007 at 8:50 pm

Wow. The state is simply reflecting, once again, that it's interests do not lie in the "good of the people" but in their own self-interests (read: re-election and power).

Sam Grove September 3, 2007 at 4:01 pm


Just what would be different in your Libertarian Society?

Imagine if the question had been asked when those scientists first linked up their computers via telephone: What will the internet look like in 2007?

Who could've answered such a question?

Sam Grove September 3, 2007 at 4:55 pm

We had a "libertarian government" as you have said and it was corrupted as it ALWAYS WILL BE if the power is taken away from the people.

Governments were established to take power away from the people. The facade of democracy was established to get them to think they had gotten it back.

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